About Lead: Sources & Exposure

The effects of lead exposure are not reversible. The goal is to prevent childhood lead exposure before harm occurs by removing lead hazards from the environment.

The effects of lead exposure are not reversible. The goal is to prevent childhood lead exposure before harm occurs by removing lead hazards from the environment.  

Sources of Lead Hazards

Lead is a toxic metal and can be found in paint, soil, jewelry, toys, home remedies, ceramics, candy, and water. Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are by far the most common form of lead exposure for children in Cleveland. Over 90 percent of rental units in the City of Cleveland were built before 1978—the year consumer use of lead-based paint was banned nationally. Because of this, many residents, especially low-income renters of color, may have trouble finding homes that are safe from lead hazards.

Surfaces in the home that rub against each other, like windows and doors, can produce leaded dust that ends up on surfaces or floats in the air. People can ingest or inhale the toxin when they spend time in areas where this dust is present. Children—especially those under the age of six—are most at risk. It takes less than a teaspoon of dust—the size of a sugar packet—to cause serious, long-term harm. 

Sources of Lead Hazards FAQs

A risk assessment determines if there are any lead hazards, such as peeling paint and lead dust, and what actions to take to address these hazards. The Lead Safe Resource Center can also assist in identifying lead risk assessors.

Lead paint is still present in many homes built before 1978, sometimes under layers of newer paint. If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a hazard. Deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention. It may also be a hazard when found on surfaces that children can chew or that get a lot of wear-and-tear, such as: windows & windowsills, doors & door frames, stairs, railings, banisters, and porches.

"You can get it from the lead dust, which is not obvious to the eye."

Robin B
Mother, Community Voice

Effects of Lead Exposure

Lead is an environmental toxin that affects the brain, heart, bones, kidneys, and nervous system and there are no safe levels once it is in the bloodstream. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years, causing serious problems. Many of these problems are not detected until years after exposure. Sometimes, signs of lead poisoning may not show up until adulthood. 

Lead poses risks prenatally as well. Lead present in maternal bone can be released into the bloodstream during pregnancy and become a source of exposure to a developing fetus. It can also cross the placental barrier, resulting in serious effects, such as miscarriage, fetal malformations, reduced fetal growth, premature birth, stillbirth, and low birth weight.

Very high doses of lead, which are rarely seen in the United States today, can cause seizures, coma, and death. However, even much lower levels can cause neurological damage, such as impaired memory and executive function, which includes the ability to plan, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks. Lead exposure may also cause depression, anxiety, and withdrawn behavior—the tendency to avoid the unfamiliar, either people, places, or situations. Lead exposure can result in decreased IQ and academic performance and can cause issues with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and attention disorders. Lead can be especially problematic among populations experiencing other developmental risk factors, all of which can impair school readiness and achievement. Lead poisoning creates a toxic baseline to which all other risks are added. 

Lead Poisoning Effects FAQs

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up over time in the body. This can cause serious health problems. When a person’s health or body functions are negatively affected by lead contamination in what they eat, drink, touch, or breathe. There are many factors that affect how different people’s bodies handle exposure to lead. These factors include a person’s age, nutritional status, and genetic makeup, as well as the source of lead and length of their exposure. Young children are at highest risk. While multiple organ systems are affected, effects on the developing brain, manifesting as difficulties with learning, attention, behavior, hearing and speech are of particular concern. Many of these problems are not experienced until years after exposure. Sometimes, signs of lead poisoning may not show up until adulthood.

There is no cure for lead poisoning. That is why preventing exposure to lead, especially among children, is important. Finding and removing sources of lead hazards from the child’s environment is needed to prevent further exposure. While there is no cure, parents can help reduce the effects of lead by talking to their primary care provider, stopping exposure, ensuring a healthy diet with adequate iron and calcium, and providing an enriching environment to support children’s development and learning. At very high blood lead levels, medical therapy known as chelation, which may require hospitalization, may be necessary.

Learn More

A blood lead test is the only way to find out if someone has been exposed to lead and has a detectable blood lead level. Talk to your child’s primary care provider or local health agency about getting a simple blood test to check for lead exposure. Your primary care provider can help decide whether a blood lead test is needed and can also recommend appropriate follow-up actions.

Children living in high risk zip codes (which includes all of the city of Cleveland), and children insured by Medicaid, should be tested at age 1 and 2 years, failing which they should have at least one blood lead test done prior to the age of 6. This is required by law. In addition, children who do not meet these criteria should be tested if there is a clinical suspicion of lead exposure based on additional risk factors that can be assessed by a primary care provider. It is worth noting that children who have recently moved to the United States from abroad, especially refugees, should be tested. 

Pregnant women should talk to their primary care provider about exposure to sources of lead.  The most important step expectant parents can take to prevent lead poisoning is to find and safely remove lead hazards in their home.

Childhood lead exposure can have a significant negative effect on children’s development. Parents should talk to their child’s primary care provider about optimizing nutrition and healthy development. Most importantly, further exposure should be stopped.

Beginning July 1, 2019, children with a confirmed blood lead level of five micrograms or greater are automatically eligible for Early Intervention in Ohio. Bright Beginnings offer resources for children up to 36 months. If the child is 3 or younger, they will be automatically referred to Early Intervention. The referral may take a few days (Ohio Department of Health sends a list weekly to Bright Beginnings). Bright Beginnings will call the family to follow up. Families can also self-refer, and must have documentation of the blood lead level.

Learn more and make a referral. You can also call 216-698-7500 or 800-755-4769 for more information or to make referral.

If the child is 3-5 (or older), the family should contact the local school district. The schools will complete a global developmental assessment. 

Enrolling children ages 3-5 in high-quality preschool is also recommended. Contact Starting Point at 216-575-0061 or visit cuyahogakids.org.

Contact the Lead Safe Resource Center for referrals to other resources.

  • Wash children’s hands often, and before eating and toys, as well as their bottles, pacifiers, and any other items a child often puts in his or her mouth. Regularly clean floors, windowsills, and dusty places with wet mops or wet cloths to pick up any dust. Use two buckets - one for soap and one for rinsing.
  • Use only cold tap water for making baby formula, drinking, and cooking. Let the water run for a few minutes before you use it.
  • Remove shoes before entering the home/property. Remove work clothes before entering the house, for any household member who does construction or other work that may involve lead. Wash these clothes separately from other items.
  • Look out for peeling paint in houses built before 1978. If renting, report it to the property owner so repairs can get made. If you own, repair it safely. To find out more about repairing peeling paint safely, contact the Lead Safe Resource Center.